By Joshua Hammer
December 17, 1984 12:00 PM

For some, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Albert Schweitzer, it can be the crowning laurel in a life already steeped in worldwide admiration. For others, such as Belfast’s women for peace Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, it is a sudden lift from obscurity. Along with celebrating world figures, it also rewards lonely heroes whose battles against poverty, racism, war or oppression are rarely spoken of beyond the boundaries of their homelands. Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, who this week receives the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, fits squarely into this category.

Little known outside his racially torn nation until the Nobel Prize announcement in October, the 53-year-old current head of the South African Council of Churches and newly appointed Bishop of Johannesburg has for the past decade been one of South Africa’s most prominent crusaders against apartheid. As an apostle of racial equality and nonviolence, he has enraged his country’s white minority government (which has twice revoked his passport), drawn praise from liberal whites and earned the adulation of blacks and clergy everywhere. “Bishop Tutu takes his place as one of the great men of South African history,” declared the South African Council of Churches after the Nobel announcement. “He is a man of God and a man of the people.”

Tutu is also a man who has lived his entire life with an intimate knowledge of South Africa’s segregationist system. He was born to a teacher in the western Transvaal mining town of Klerksdorp and attended high school in a black township outside Johannesburg, where he supported himself selling peanuts in suburban railway stations and caddying at an elite all-white golf course. Aiming to become a doctor, he was admitted to the University of the Witwatersrand medical school but was forced to drop out when his parents could no longer pay his tuition. Instead, Tutu became a teacher. In the slums of Sophiatown he met Father Trevor Huddleston, a white Anglican priest who incurred the anger of the government for his antiapartheid activities. “Like many people, I came under the spell of Trevor Huddleston,” says Tutu. “I will never forget his compassion, caring, love and deep spirituality.”

Tutu enrolled at a seminary outside Johannesburg and became the deacon of that city’s racially mixed St. Mary’s Anglican Cathedral in 1960. He studied and lectured in London for several years, eventually returning to Johannesburg in 1975 “to contribute what I could to the liberation struggle.” Two years later Tutu became the leader of the South African Council of Churches, which represents 13 million Christians—the majority of them black. The council is viewed by the government as dangerously left wing.

Under Tutu’s seven-year stewardship the group gave legal and financial aid to victims of apartheid, detainees and families of political prisoners. Tutu also spoke out both at home and abroad against foreign investment in South Africa, openly supporting the aims—though not the violent tactics—of the banned African National Congress, South Africa’s largest underground liberation group. “The day the worm turns, we will have a bloodbath,” he warns. “And we don’t want that bloodbath. We are trying to avoid it.”

Last month, in the wake of the Nobel Peace Prize announcement, Tutu was appointed the first black Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg. Although the diocese is 72 percent black, the decision was opposed by white Anglican conservatives, who are uncomfortable with his political outspokenness and unabashed flamboyance. Ultimately a special vote of South Africa’s bishops, 12 black and 11 white, had to be called to confirm Tutu’s election.

Certainly Tutu is nothing if not impassioned. Like all great preachers, his every speech and press conference is a blaze of emotion, his every gesture a drop of oil fueling the oratorical fire. Waving his arms, punching the air like a boxer, the elfin (approximately 5’3″) figure draws in his followers with a stream of whispers, shouts and sobs, punctuated with roars of laughter. His oratory ranges from the puckish (“I don’t want to, but I’m going to say it anyway: Some of my best friends are white”) to the incendiary (“If the Russians were to come to South Africa today, then most blacks…would welcome them as saviors. Anything would be better than apartheid”).

Tutu can burn with religious righteousness and lash out at hypocrisy and apathy with scathing fury. “Are blacks expendable?” he asks a Manhattan audience. “Is it nothing to the American public…that you have a government that is collaborating with an immoral and evil system?” And he can be surprisingly candid. “I’m not a pacifist; no, no, no,” declares Tutu, married and the father of four children, ages 28 to 21. “If someone wanted to rape my wife, I couldn’t stand and fold my hands. I think there are some things for which you want to fight.”

Tutu, who is currently a visiting professor at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, will return to Johannesburg to take over South Africa’s largest Anglican diocese. The mood of the new Nobel laureate is naturally buoyant. “The marvelous thing has been the wonderful joy that has radiated from so many people,” he says. “The award has given new hope to those who have sometimes felt that evil was on the rampage. Now we are given a wonderful signal by God that right will prevail.”

Alas, others who know of the cruelties and disappointments of South Africa are far less sanguine. “Where the Nobel Peace Prize signifies peace and goodwill to all men, in South Africa it seems to fuel the racial flames,” said The Sowetan, South Africa’s largest black newspaper. “With Alan Paton, we can only weep for this beloved country.”